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Spying In Washington, D.C.

Tourists turn into secret agents at the International Spy Museum

Jul 06, 2009

WASHINGTON - An Ohio family of five went undercover in the nation’s capital to help foil a cyber “terrorist attack.”

Their attire wasn’t suspicious: shorts, T-shirts and jackets tied around their waists.

They were playing a game at the International Spy Museum that sends tourists trolling through the city with GPS devices searching for clues and codes to stop the attack before it starts.

The game, called “Spy in the City,” was developed by former intelligence officers who want to teach the public a bit about their craft.

Carol Metzger, Brock Sturgeon and their three kids — Brooke, 11; Luke, 8; Alaina, 6 — thought they were up to the task, squeezing it in with a trip to Capitol Hill.

The mission: Find a hidden password to deactivate a terrorist device that could wipe out computers in the nation’s capital. Players also must test clues from a source to see if he can be trusted.

The first clue sends the quintet down the block to an old bank’s night deposit box, then on to Ford’s Theatre and past FBI headquarters.

“The old days of a museum being just dusty artifacts in a display case that you walk by and admire, I think are long gone,” said Peter Earnest, the museum’s executive director. Earnest was in the CIA for 35 years.

Games could play a big role in keeping museums relevant, according to Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future. She urged curators to make museums interactive, perhaps through games that solve real-world problems.

The spy museum has been a popular draw, bringing in 700,000 visitors a year despite its $18 admission fee. It has also benefited from the buzz of spy-themed movies and video games.

Recently, Angelina Jolie was filming at some of the same D.C. sites as those in the museum’s game for the upcoming spy movie “Salt.”

That blend of pop culture, reality and education is the key to how the museum hopes to nab visitors willing to pay $14 to play.

“You actually get to feel what it’s like to be a spy,” said Anna Slafer, the museum’s education director. The plot is based on a combination of real spy stories, the creators say.

“When you don’t know who to trust, when you don’t know the answers, when you’re sort of dropped into a situation and you’re not sure what to do, that’s real espionage,” Slafer said.

Slafer said the museum’s game can spark curiosity among players about real challenges the intelligence community faces, namely the idea that terrorists would try to knock out computer systems.

“With this particular plot and in this city, the idea of cyber warfare is very real,” she said.

The players find clues at the National Archives and in fountains and statues. The toughest task is decoding a message from the words of the First Amendment engraved in stone at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Sturgeon family didn’t foil the terrorist plot on their own, after failing to deactivate the cyber terrorism device. “Spy agents” who were directing the operation had to step in.

“Although your work today wasn’t stellar,” they were told by spy HQ, “we definitely think you have potential as a covert spy agent.”


•The International Spy Museum is at 800 F St. N.W.

•Each agent receives his or her own Geo-COBRA GPS unit and disposable earphones. “To optimize secure communication (and be a spy who saves the environment) you are encouraged to use your own earphones that plug into any MP3 player.”

•Allow an hour and a half for the mission (1.2-mile circuit), depending on your spy skills.

•It’s $14 a person.

International Spy Museum:

Tourists turn into secret agents at the International Spy Museum
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Source: AP

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